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Fashion and Social Issues Merge in India

Each of the five days of Lakme Fashion Week were focused as much on causes as they were on the runways.

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MUMBAI — Whether the fashion community was hit by a collective social conscience or by mere coincidence, each of the five days of Lakme Fashion Week here were focused as much on causes as they were on fashion.

This story first appeared in the March 29, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Not that fashion was ignored during the shows, which were held from March 22 to 26. New York-based designer Naeem Khan made his first showing in India, making it a sort of homecoming. “Oh my god, the attention has been overwhelming,” he remarked, shortly before his show began.

Tarun Tahiliani made his way back to Lakme Fashion Week after a gap with an off-site show, giving the event a kick-start and a look into his current designs and drapes that have remained his signature.

Then there was the new management, led by Saket Dhankar, head of fashion at IMG Reliance, who measured and mapped the event carefully to win the difficult balances required of an event that has been taking some flak for not getting enough buyers but having a tremendous strength in drawing the media, celebrities and in creating new talent.

There was buzz in terms of silhouette and design, especially with the Saturday show by Naeem Khan. “This is my first showing in India and I’m excited and very nervous,” he told WWD.

Khan’s designs have been worn by celebrities such First Lady Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria, Lea Michele, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Florence Welch, Emily Blunt, and Queen Noor of Jordan.

“Celebrity dressing is very important to us,” he said.

Describing his silhouettes, he observed, “My clothes are classics, they appeal to an international woman. In India everyone is dressing like in New York and this applies everywhere else, there is a sense of international dressing across the world.”

He continues to expand his presence worldwide. “We have just opened in Brazil and now have stores in the Middle East, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore,” he said.

LFW had 87 designer runway shows, with a large number from Delhi and Mumbai — 20 designers from Delhi and 32 from Mumbai. Tarun Tahiliani, who kickstarted the event with his off-site show just before the main event began, showed again after a gap, citing a stronger retail growth and a reorganization to handle this growth better.

“Designers often work different roles at the same time, managing retail, design, growth, etc., and it is sometimes a challenge to balance all of these things,” Tahiliani said, adding that the fashion weeks helped in making these balances by offering a one-stop space from which the designer’s work could be viewed.

Designers often pushed social causes at their shows, often represented through the glamorous sieve of Bollywood celebrities — both in the front row and on the runway. An example was Vikram Phadnis’ show, in partnership with Swades, a nongovernmental organization that works for the empowerment of rural India. This brought together more than 40 Bollywood stars, sending photographers wild. Each set of the Bollywood celebrities walked the runway with a local hero from a village, all in shades of gold and rusts, all done in khadi.

“I am celebrating rural India through my line,” Phadnis said after the show.

There were other events calling on the collective conscience, such as an ode to the conservation of tigers, for which Bollywood actress Neha Dhupia walked the runway. And more than 40 designers participated with tiger-inspired garments. Three designers were also chosen as winners of a contest sponsored by telecom giant Aircel to create looks inspired by tiger conservation: Vaishali S, Sougat Paul and Arjun Khanna were each awarded 250,000 rupees, or $4,699.

There was concern for dogs, too, led by Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez in support of adoption of street dogs, for PETA India.

Garnering the most attention, however, was the cause supporting local artisans and weavers, the need to support them and their continuing decline. The issue was discussed at a workshop and an entire day dedicated to Indian textiles. As designer Ritu Kumar said at the workshop, one of the challenges is to translate Indian textiles into modern fitted silhouettes. “This is where the future innovation comes in,” she said.

This innovation was apparent on the runway with designers showing simpler silhouettes. Creams, whites and monochromes ruled the day, as did neons. The embroidery was more discreet, and at other times, flamboyant in large florals, bird motifs and geometric patterns, but breaking from the more traditional patterns and styles of wedding outfits. Net and sheer fabrics recurred through the five days, in experimental plays with color blocking.

Prints were recurring themes as well. Krishna Mehta played with monochromes and a variety of print styles, working with each other in unexpected combinations of stripes and shapes. “It’s been a medley of prints coming together. My textures are so strong, my textiles are so strong I don’t try to mess too much with silhouettes. For me, it is the fabric that is the core,” she said.

Many of the buyers were from the fast-growing local market.

“It’s all eyes on the Indian market,” said designer Swapnil Shinde, whose show had neon shades and strong silhouettes. “Season after season people ask me who buys this, does it sell? And I say I would be a fool if I were doing it again and again if it wasn’t selling. I think we underestimate our woman, not just in the metropolitan cities but from the smaller cities as well.”

Masaba Gupta, who has established her own niche with her prints — often of cow prints on jackets — said she had gone a step further, to try and break the mold, with her collection based on the widows of Banaras, another strong social theme from Indian society. She wears two hats: one as an independent designer, the other as creative director at Satya Paul.

Designers are watching developments at LFW carefully as the change of management in the last few months has led to speculation and predictions about its future. Saket Dhankar, who succeeded Anjana Sharma as head of fashion at IMG Reliance, said LFW will “continue to evolve” but in the meantime will keep many of its signature concepts, such as a focus on Indian textiles and the Talent Box, where young designers hold runway shows in a separate area.

“As thought leaders in Indian fashion and trade, our endeavor is to strengthen LFW as a platform every season,” Dhankar explained, adding that he was “especially excited to have had Indian-born, international designer Naeem Khan’s first-ever show in India, which demonstrates our efforts to integrate India and build its reputation as a fashion destination globally.”

Purnima Lamba, head of innovations at Lakme (the beauty brand from Hindustan Unilver) who is partner at the event, had a clear perspective on the new management: “The relationship between Lakme and IMG has been very collaborative and Saket coming on board has not caused fear. Overall, we haven’t seen the kind of buzz we saw at this event in a long time. It’s been very positive in terms of the quality of designers, buyers, its all been very positive,” she said.

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